"Its time we started thinking beyond our guns, those days are closing fast," muses Pike (William Holden) shortly after the bloodiest shootout in cinema history. The shootout was the result of a botched robbery attempt, and it soon descended into carnage where Pike and his titular Wild Bunch are forced to shoot their way out of an ambush, killing a good portion of civilians in the crossfire.
This classic movie was released in 1969 in response to the hugely successful 'buddy buddy' western `Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'. Butch Cassidy's huge success at the box office essentially green lit the way for Sam Peckinpah's vision of a changing wild west in The Wild Bunch. It would be a travesty to think about The Wild Bunch in terms of its violence; it is a much better movie than that. It is indeed a violent movie, but it is also a solid drama that is well acted. The music (award winning Jerry Fielding), the script, editing (eg. the opening credits with the scorpions) and acting are second to none.
The story of the movie is ageless and such a similar story/plot can still be seen in contemporary cinema, i.e. in classics such as HEAT where the main characters (bank robbers) are dreaming of abandoning their violent ways and start living up to their oft-spoken ideals, after they achieve their dream of "one last job". This crime plot was never used with better results.
The screenplay by Peckinpah and Walon Green contains several other moments of brilliance. My personal favorites are the exchanges beside a campfire between the leaders of the group (Holden and Borgnine) regarding the state of their affairs. Says Holden, "I'd like to make just one last big score and then back off." "Back off to what?" replies Borgnine, implying that their violent pasts wouldn't allow them to simply settle down peacefully at this point in their lives. I also particularly enjoy Holden's commentary on his hubris-filled nemesis Harrigan: "There's an awful lot of people who just can't admit to being wrong, or to learn from it." "Pride," answers Borgnine simply and shrugs his shoulders. Other central themes in the screenplay include honor, integrity, companionship, and in the end, redemption.
In a masterstroke of casting The Wild Bunch is headed by the great William Holden (Bridge over River Kwai, Network) and supported by other great actors who are not prettyboy Refords or Newmans. In terms of editing The Wild Bunch abandons traditional sound and editing processes in favour of visionary new ones, and thus revolutionising the depiction of onscreen violence (nobody would ride a bike in a Peckinpah movie, and `Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head' would not be on the soundtrack).
The Wild Bunch was released in the same year as the second greatest Western ever made: `Once upon a time in the West' (Box office flop in USA). Like Sergio Leone, Peckinpah's mission was to pay homage to the classic Western while at the same time completely eviscerating it. Unlike Leone, however, Peckinpah's Westerns aren't parodic or surreal. The Wild Bunch is set in a particular place (Mexico as opposed to the mythic nowhere of the Dollars trilogy) at an explicit time 1913, and Peckinpah wants us to empathise with these out-of-time characters despite the fact that they are cold blooded killers. Peckinpah's greatest achievement is that he succeeds.
Despite the violence there is camaraderie between the Wild Bunch members. The movies bleak tone is lightened with scenes of boozing and whoring. There is a lot of humour in the Wild Bunch: children and the scorpions; drunken fooling around with whores in the cellar; Old Sykes laughter over the films final moments. By the movies end it is obvious that the Bunch cannot think beyond their guns; they try to rescue their friend (Angel). "Lets go." "Why not?"